The share of Americans who believe that President Obama’s health care plan will “make things better” for the middle class, their own families, and the country overall has tumbled sharply since last September, underscoring the administration’s formidable public-relations challenge as it prepares to roll out the sweeping legislation’s key remaining elements.
The latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll also revealed a deep racial schism in expectations about the law, with whites far more skeptical than minorities that the Affordable Care Act will benefit not only their own families but the country as a whole.
By contrast, the survey found that a majority of Americans across racial lines believe the law will help both the poor and the uninsured. Those findings, combined with the widespread doubt among whites about the law’s personal impact, confounds the hope of Democratic political strategists who once heralded health care reform as an opportunity to demonstrate that government could provide tangible benefits to average families. Instead, the survey suggests that many Americans—particularly working-class whites—view the health care law essentially as a transfer payment that will benefit the needy but not their own family. In that way, the law so far appears to be reinforcing the broadly shared skepticism about government activism among whites that it was meant to dispel.
The poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,000 adults ages 18 and over from July 18-21 by landline and cell phone. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
Though the survey also found that only about one-third of Americans want to repeal the health care law, the poll documented a marked deterioration in expectations about the plan’s impact since last September, the previous time the Congressional Connection Poll tested these attitudes. At that point, Obama was regularly making the case for the reform during his reelection campaign. But since then, he has defended the law more rarely while Republicans in Congress and the states have maintained an unrelenting drumbeat of opposition to it.
The administration has also faced the headwinds of mixed reports about the law's impact on premiums in the individual health care market; choices by Republican governors not to participate in core elements of the plan; and its own decision to delay implementation of the mandate on large employers to insure their workers.
After all those developments, just 35 percent of those surveyed in the new poll said they believed the law will benefit “people like you or your family,” while 46 percent expected it would make things worse for them. That’s a decline from last September, when 43 percent expected improvement and 40 percent anticipated harm.
Two other measures found even greater slippage. Just 36 percent of those surveyed say the law will “make things better” for the middle class, while 49 percent say they expect it will “make things worse.” That’s another steep decline from September, when 45 percent said it would help, and 40 percent said it would hurt, the middle-class.
Likewise, the share of adults who say the law will benefit the country overall fell by a comparable amount. Last September, a 50-percent-to-39-percent majority thought the law would make things better, rather than worse, for the nation overall. But in the new poll those numbers have almost reversed: Just 41 percent expect benefits for the country, while a 48 percent plurality believe the law will make things worse.
Expectations on those three key measures have slipped since last September among both minorities and whites, but the two groups continue to display almost precisely mirror-image attitudes about the law. For instance, minorities by a 56-percent-to-27-percent majority expect the law to benefit middle-class families; whites by a 58-percent-to-27-percent majority expect it to hurt them. Minorities, by 59 percent to 29 percent, believe the law will be good for the country overall; whites, by 57 percent to 34 percent, believe it will hurt it. Perhaps most important, minorities by 54 percent to 25 percent believe the law will improve things for them and their families, while whites by 55 percent to 27 percent say it will “make things worse” in their own lives.
A new question that asks respondents how the law will affect the health care they received produced similar results. Among minorities, 30 percent said the law would improve their health care, while 15 percent said it would make it worse, and 44 percent said it would have “not much effect.” Among whites, by contrast, just 13 percent expected improvement, while 41 percent thought it would hurt their own care, and 39 percent expected little effect.
Nearly three-fifths of those polled (including 55 percent of whites and 67 percent of minorities) said they believed the law would help the uninsured, and 55 percent (including half of whites and over two-thirds of minorities) said it would boost the poor. Both of those results represented only modest declines since last fall. By contrast, while a strong plurality last September said the law would benefit seniors, respondents now tilted toward doubt, with 42 percent saying it would make things worse for the elderly, and only 40 percent expecting improvement.
Ominously for the White House, the survey found that hesitation is widespread even among the portions of the white community usually most receptive to Democrats. Only about one-third of whites ages 18-34 said they believed the law would benefit the middle class, the country, or their own families. Similarly just 29 percent of college-educated white women thought the law would personally benefit them and only 35 percent thought it would help the middle class—though 44 percent thought it would help the country overall (compared with 48 percent who thought the law would hurt it.) College-educated white men also expressed doubt about its impact on the middle class and their own family, but a narrow plurality thought it would help the country overall.
Among the elements of the white community typically resistant to Democrats, the law faced towering doubts. Just 25 percent of whites without a college degree thought it would help the middle class or their own families, and only 29 percent believed it would benefit the country. Among white seniors, about one-fifth thought it would benefit their own families, roughly three in 10 believed it would help the middle class, and one-third thought it would help the country overall. Less than one in four of them thought it would benefit seniors. All of those are worrisome trends for Democrats heading into a midterm election, when the elderly typically comprise a much larger share of the vote than in presidential years.
This article appears in the July 24, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Poll: Americans Have Doubts on Obamacare.